NJ Supreme Court Limits Reach of State Discrimination Law

In a decision that offers important guidelines to New Jersey employers regarding their obligation to accommodate employees who become disabled, the New Jersey Supreme Court on June 12, 2007, held that an employee must possess the occupational qualifications for the job to trigger an employer's obligation to reasonably accommodate that employee under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). (Raspa v. Office of the Sheriff of Gloucester Cy, No. A-53-06 (N.J. June 12, 2007)). In rendering its decision, the Court reversed the trial and appellate rulings that had required the employer to make permanent the temporary light-duty assignments that it had provided to the plaintiff.

The Court determined that, because the plaintiff admittedly could not meet the essential job functions stated in the specifications for his position as a county corrections officer, the LAD did not require the County Sheriff to accommodate the employee by creating a permanent position that exempted him from well-established and essential job requirements. The Court further held that the fact the Sheriff's Department had made light-duty assignments available for temporarily disabled employees, and had provided plaintiff with light-duty for three years, did not create an additional duty to provide a permanent or indefinite light-duty assignment to plaintiff.

The Gloucester County Sheriff's Department hired Michael J. Raspa, Jr. as a corrections officer assigned to the Gloucester County Jail in 1984. The job description listed by the New Jersey Department of Personnel ("NJDOP") defined a tour of duty for a corrections officer at a correctional facility to include "guard[ing] inmates serving court imposed sentences for the commission of criminal offenses." The posted NJDOP job description included examples of duties such as "[p]atroling cell block areas, tiers, grounds and corridors; [e]scort[ing] groups of inmates during movements within or outside the institution to prevent disorder or breaches in security; [p]hysically restrain[ing] inmates when necessary to prevent injuries to staff and other inmates and to maintain security; and [s]earching inmates cells/dormitories in accord with established policies/regulations/procedures to find contraband articles." In addition, the "knowledge and abilities" section of the job specification required that a county corrections officer must be able "to cope with crisis situations."

In 1997, Raspa was diagnosed with a thyroid condition known as Graves' Disease. Thereafter, Raspa developed Graves' ophthalmopathy, a condition that causes bulging eyes (due to swelling behind the eyeball that forces the eye forward in its socket) and double vision. The condition has no known cure. In 1999, plaintiff provided the Sheriff's Department with a note from his physician requesting that plaintiff "not supervise inmates," to prevent eye trauma and exacerbation of Raspa's Graves' Disease. In response, over the ensuing three years, the Department assigned Raspa to a series of temporary positions with minimum to no inmate contact, despite a 1999 general order limiting to 30 days any light-duty assignment for someone not injured on the job. In 2002, the Sheriff's Department, invoking the 30-day limitation, informed Raspa it could no longer comply with his doctor's request and could not guarantee that Raspa would have "no contact" with inmates. Accordingly, the Department instituted the paperwork for placing Raspa on disability retirement, which was granted. Raspa, who did not participate in the application for disability retirement, filed suit challenging the Department's withdrawal of his light-duty assignment and his involuntary retirement.

The trial court denied summary judgment to the Sheriff's Department. Following trial, the jury found in Raspa's favor, awarding him both back pay and future damages (i.e., front pay). The trial court reversed the jury's future damages award, and entered a judgment in the amount of $273,000, including attorneys' fees. The Appellate Division, citing Jansen v. Food Circus Supermarkets, Inc., 110 N.J. 363, 383 (1988), affirmed in all respects, stating the proposed accommodation of transforming temporary light-duty jobs into permanent jobs did not unduly burden the defendant.

The Supreme Court held otherwise, making clear that an employer is not obligated to accommodate an employee's permanent disability that has left him unable to discharge the essential functions of the position in which he had been employed. The Court praised the broad reach of the LAD as pivotal in eradicating the "cancer of discrimination," but cautioned viewing the LAD as without limitation. See N.J.S.A 10:5-4.1 (providing against unlawful discrimination "unless the nature and extent of the disability reasonably precludes the performance of the particular employment"). In rendering its opinion, the Court relied heavily upon the NJDOP job description for the position of county corrections officer, which established that most of the essential functions of the job require close inmate contact. The Court further noted that the plaintiff knew that the NJDOP's description of the position was controlling and the list of duties were essential to the position, leading the Court to find that no "objectively viable and reasonable accommodation would ever make plaintiff qualified to perform the functions he admitted were essential to the position." The Court thus found that, as a matter of law, Raspa was unqualified to serve as a corrections officer and that his request to be excused from any inmate contact constituted an unreasonable accommodation.

Of importance, the Court further held that "the duty to reasonably accommodate a disability does not translate into the required conversion of a temporary, light-duty job into a permanent placement," given "[t]he light-duty positions were not intended to be a permanent post, but a temporary . . . bridge between an inability to work due to injury and a return to full employment status." The Court also sanctioned the Sheriff's Department's preference for light-duty to those injured on the job, noting the difference between providing temporary light-duty positions to permit an employee to recover from an illness or injury and permanent light-duty assignments.

Finally, the Court expressly held that while an employer may "terminate the employment of an employee who, after consideration of available reasonable accommodations, nevertheless is no longer able to perform the essential functions of his job" consistent with the LAD, the employer is not obligated to do so. The Court made clear it lauds the efforts of employers who "seek to retain disabled employees in either modified or different job settings," but declined to convert the good faith efforts of an employer into a legal accommodation.

Consistent with this holding, the Appellate Division in Parisi v. New Jersey Department of Human Services, No. A-4668-05T2 (June 13, 2007), one day after the Raspa decision, found "an employer's duty to accommodate 'extends only so far as necessary to allow 'a disabled employee' to perform the essential functions of [the] job' and 'does not require acquiescence to the employee's every demand.'" (quoting Tynan v. Vicinage 13 of the Superior Court, 351 N.J. Super. 385, 397).

These decisions highlight for New Jersey employers the importance and utility of having accurate and sufficiently detailed job descriptions. Moreover, the New Jersey Supreme Court decision may be read as endorsing light-duty assignments as a temporary, reasonable accommodation in appropriate circumstances.

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Please feel free to contact Maxine H. Neuhauser in the firm's Newark office at 973/639-8269 or [email protected], if you have any questions or comments. Terri Ginsberg, a summer associate in the Labor and Employment Department, assisted in the preparation of this Alert.

This document has been provided for informational purposes only and is not intended and should not be construed to constitute legal advice. Please consult your attorneys in connection with any fact-specific situation under the applicable state or local laws that may impose additional obligations on your company.

© 2007 Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.